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Black Leaf Legal Troubles Could Complicate Site Cleanup

It’s obvious just from looking at it that the Black Leaf site in West Louisville is in an extreme state of disrepair.

Standing outside the fence on St. Louis Avenue in the city’s Park Hill neighborhood, structures are crumbling into themselves. Marvin Hayes lives directly next door; at times, parts of the dilapidated buildings have blown off onto his property.

“All that stuff’s been blowing off,” he said, pointing to a structure’s roof that’s only half there. “We’ve been fighting that for two years.”

Those who live near the site just want to see it cleaned up — both of the eyesores and of the poisons that were found in the ground, a legacy of the site’s industrial past.

But documents obtained by WFPL reveal the contaminated site is under foreclosure, and its owner owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes and fines, which could add another wrinkle to an already complicated cleanup process.

The Black Leaf site has a long history of industrial use. It was home to a pesticide manufacturing plant from 1920 to 1959, and there was a cooperage on the other end of the 29-acre property for years. All of this use left the site’s soil contaminated, and for the past few years, state and federal regulators have been grappling with how to remediate it.

The site has been owned by the Louisville Industrial Park since 1999, when Tony Young and Gerald Cox bought the property for nearly $1.8 million. Cox is no longer listed as an officer of the company with the Kentucky Secretary of State; now, Young is the sole officer. He declined a request for comment on this story.

But in the years since the state and federal Environmental Protection Agency discovered the extent of the site’s contamination and began planning to hold its previous tenants responsible for a cleanup, Young hasn’t paid Jefferson County property taxes on the site and hasn’t paid Louisville Metro fines for code violations. A bank has purchased some of his debt and begun foreclosure proceedings.

Documents obtained by WFPL show:

•    Foreclosure proceedings were initiated against the company in 2013 by Nebraska Alliance Realty Company, after the company assumed responsibility for about $41,000 of Louisville Industrial Park’s debt.

•    Louisville Industrial Park owes Metro government $4,812 for property nuisance violations and $2,655.44 for “cleaning” on the Black Leaf site in 2011 and 2012.

•    Louisville Industrial Park hasn’t paid local taxes on the site since at least 2005. The company owes Louisville Metro government nearly $550,000 in back taxes. Banks and state government bought some of the company’s additional debt — it now owes the state $202,972.40. In addition, it owes $98,230.73 to two banks, including the aforementioned debt to Nebraska Alliance Realty Company.

All this legal trouble has the potential to complicate Black Leaf’s cleanup process.

In 2007, Nebraska Alliance Realty Company bought some of the Louisville Industrial Park’s delinquent county property taxes. In 2013, the bank initiated foreclosure proceedings against the company, in an effort to recoup that debt.

But three years later, Black Leaf still hasn’t entered the final stages of foreclosure.

Tim Hubbard of the Kentucky Division of Waste Management said in the past, he’s seen banks delay foreclosure until a contaminated site is remediated to avoid having to assume any responsibility for the cleanup.

“They don’t really want to move forward and take that final foreclosure action, where they take over the property, until they’re real confident that either the property is going to be mediated by the responsible parties or is going to be in much better condition for them to be able to take that property on and try to resell it,” he said.

The state is still working to approve a cleanup plan for the site; earlier this year, a number of companies Kentucky designated as “potentially responsible parties” submitted a plan. But a sticking point may be how much of the pollution gets cleaned up. The initial plan included only cleaning up some of the contamination, and restricting any further uses of the site to industrial use.

Hubbard said in some cases, the state has to assume responsibility for cleanup if a property owner is unable to pay for it. But, he said, for Black Leaf, there are so many responsible parties that someone will step up — even if financial troubles mean Tony Young or Louisville Industrial Park can’t.

“The city and state will not be saddled with cleanup of the site,” Hubbard said. “It’s just a matter of what the cleanup plan ultimately will look like, what the methods are, schedule, those are the main activities now that need to be addressed that are still sort of out there.”

But without a clear future owner and land use for the Black Leaf site, it may be more difficult to plan for the site’s future.

Hubbard said there’s still no final cleanup plan. The state will respond to the one that’s been submitted and plans to get public input before it’s finalized, he said.

But even if some amount of remediation happens, it could be years before these legal challenges are resolved and a new owner moves forward to develop — or even just tear down hazardous buildings — on the Black Leaf site.